Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Unfinished Business

By Shawn Healy
I had the privilege of introducing author Michael J. Klarman at a Chicago Humanities Festival program yesterday at Alliance France de Chicago featuring his most recent book, Unfinished Business: Racial Equality in American History. This program, along with several Chicago Humanities Festival events, were underwritten by the McCormick Tribune Foundation. Klarman spoke for nearly an hour, and entertained a couple of questions afterward. His remarks were fluid and provided valuable insight into an issue well-documented, but widely misinterpreted. The book is equally thoughtful and a must-read for those interested in a historical view of race relations over the course of American history.

Klarman emphasized eight themes during his lecture, all documented in his concise 221-page volume. First, he contends that racial progress in the U.S. was by no means inevitable. In fact, there were definitive periods of regression, the repeal of Reconstruction in the South after 1876 standing as the most prominent example.

Second, racial progress is not a product of white leaders "doing the right thing." Rather, African-Americans had to fight for every inch of freedom that they attained along the way. For instance, A. Philip Randolph's threatened March on Washington during WWII convinced President Roosevelt to issue an executive order forbidding discrimination in the awarding of defense contracts. After the war, as African-Americans attained levels of education previously denied, elite, educated leaders of protest movements emerged, and their claims could no longer be denigrated on account of "black ignorance."

Third, racial progress is also dependent upon "ripe" conditions for change. The Great Migration precipitated by labor shortages during WWI enabled blacks who flocked to the North to vote for the first time. In the process, the two major parties were forced to compete for their allegiance by offering benefits that catered to the needs of their communities. Moreover, the formation of black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier furthered the cause throughout the country, and NAACP chapters found fertile ground to contest injustices via litigation.

Fourth, racial progress itself is often a product of unintended consequences. The Civil War was fought initially to save the Union, not end slavery. Furthermore, the 15th Amendment was passed not for the rightful extension of suffrage to former slaves, but to establish a southern base of support for the Republican Party controlling Congress during Reconstruction.

Fifth, in a point closely tied to the previous argument, white leaders often had ulterior motives for promoting racial progress. For example, the drafters of the Constitution pushed to end the slave trade in 20 years to preserve the value of slaves living in the Middle South. Later, the free soilers that became the Republican Party first contested slavery on the ground that they simply did not want to compete with the institution economically in the North, nor did they want free blacks in the region. Both actions led to the demise of slavery, but inadvertently.

Six, there is a continuous dynamic of racial progress that replicated itself across American history. Southern or congressional actions would infuriate northerners, making their southern counterparts even more defensive. The southern reaction was often so extreme that it lead to violence, breeding further northern outrage. The Fugitive Slave Act and the Birmingham beatings are pertinent examples prior to the Civil War, and during the Civil Rights Movement, respectively.

Seven, the Supreme Court has more often been a foe, rather than a friend, to racial minorities. By upholding the Fugitive Slave Act, overturning convictions for lynchings, and striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, the Court proved a formidable foe. The 2007 case limiting affirmative action by local school districts to promote desegregation is arguably another step in this direction.

Eighth, and finally, these Supreme Court decisions most often reflect, rather than shape, public opinion. Positive decisions like the reversal of death sentences for the Scottsboro Boys, the termination of the white primary, and the infamous Brown decision were reflective of the majority of public opinion at the time. Negative verdicts, like Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson were decided with similar popular backing.

In the end, Klarman's remarks were provocative and informative, forcing us all to re-digest many of the historical developments to which we have long been exposed, and in some cases experienced. Sadly, it is not an uplifting story, and the journey is not even close to completion. The impact of racial inequalities continues to stain our society as African-American men are more likely to go to prison than college, illegitimacy and unemployment rates dwarf those of their white counterparts, and nooses proliferate across the country in a stark reminder of the atrocities directed at an oppressed race for centuries. All Americans would be well-served by revisiting this history in the coherent form presented by Klarman, and to actively fight for the realization of the American promise still unfulfilled.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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